In Singapore, Mattis blasts China over weaponization of South China Sea

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis delivers his speech during the first plenary session of the 17th International Institute for Strategic Studies

It came just hours after US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told the security summit that China's military build-up and deployment of weapon systems in the contested sea was aimed at intimidating its neighbors.

On Sunday, two USA warships sailed within 12 nautical miles of the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, drawing a sharp rebuke from China.

"Despite China's claims to the contrary, the placement of these weapon systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion", Mattis told the Shangri-La Dialogue.

Old disputes between the US and China have flared up amid the Trump administration's efforts to counter Chinese influence.

He's comments were the first at such a public and global event to acknowledge Beijing's plans to base both troops and weapons on its natural and man-made islands in the Paracel and Spratly archipelagoes.

Satellite photographs taken on 12 May showed China appeared to have deployed truck-mounted surface-to-air missiles or anti-ship cruise missiles at Woody Island in the disputed sea.

He also said the issue of USA troops in South Korea was "not on the table" at this month's summit between President Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong-un.

In a more conciliatory tone, Mattis said the U.S. would continue to pursue "cooperation whenever possible".

Mattis also touched on Taiwan, a longstanding dispute between the US and China.

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Mattis said the Trump administration's recent decision to disinvite China from a multinational naval exercise this summer was an "initial response" to Beijing's island activity.

"There are consequences that will continue to come home to roost, so to speak, with China, if they don't find a way to work more collaboratively with all of the nations who have interests", he said.

As expected, the Pentagon chief gave only a brief mention of the ongoing negotiations for an historic summit later this month between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

In a dig at China, which the Pentagon has accused of using "predatory" economics to exploit neighbors, Mattis said the U.S. supports the peaceful resolution of disputes, "free, fair and reciprocal trade and investment" and adherence to worldwide rules and norms. "This is our priority theater", Mattis added.

China accused the USA of trespassing after two Navy warships sailed near a reef claimed by Beijing on Sunday. China protested the move. China has not sent high-level officials to the three-day meeting, in an apparent attempt to deflect attention from its campaign to expand its sovereignty across virtually the entire South China Sea.

On the Trump administration's relations with USA allies and neighbors, including the recent move to place tariffs on Canada, Mexico, and the European Union, Mattis acknowledged there had been "some unusual approaches".

Chinese J-15 fighter jets on the deck of the Liaoning aircraft carrier during military drills in the South China Sea on 2 January 2017.

Mr Mattis only made a glancing reference to North Korea, reiterating that it was a diplomatically led effort and the objective remained the "complete verifiable, and irreversible denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula".

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